The 8th of December 2020 became a landmark day for Australia following the legislative ban on the export of waste passing in Parliament and soon to be enacted into law. As of the 1st of January 2021, the ban on exporting glass comes into effect with other waste streams such as plastic, paper and tires to be implemented progressively over the next few years until 2024. The plan is to build the reprocessing capacity onshore, with incentives of creating new industries and jobs particularly in regional Australia with the notion and drive of turning waste into worth. The Scott Morrison administration has been at the forefront of taking ownership and being accountable to its own waste which it regards as its own problem. The new laws cement Australia’s world-leading stance on waste, asserts the benefits of bold measures during economic recovery post-COVID-19 and affirms Australia’s earth stewardship commitment on a global scale. The article seeks to evaluate recycling and waste in Australia, followed by having a closer look at the Recycling & Waste Reduction Bill 2020 and the long term benefits for Australia. 

Classifying Waste

The term waste refers to materials or products that are unwanted or have been discarded, rejected or abandoned this includes materials that are recycled, converted to energy and disposed. In Australia, waste come from three different streams namely domestic and municipal which includes all household waste and waste collected in public places, commercial and industrial waste from all business and industrial activities and public institutions and lastly construction and demolition waste which is generated from the building and construction industry. Classification of waste by composition includes glass, paper, organic, metal and plastic with emphasis of the reforms in waste management in Australia over the past few years having been on solid waste following the recent decision by China pertaining to it banning the import of recycled material. Australia’s key framework driving waste management policy and practice is known as the waste management hierarchy and it is used to rank the ways of dealing with waste in order of preferences. Categorically, the waste management hierarchy ranks strategies in order of preference from avoiding the creation of waste as the most preferable outcome and its disposal as the least preferable outcome. 

Engineering solutions for waste


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Strategies to avoid waste involve actions to reduce the amount of waste generated by households, industry and government with intention to maximize efficiency and reduce the use of virgin materials via efforts to conscientize and change consumer behavior. In cases were avoiding or reducing waste is impossible, material re-use is preferred in order to avoid energy costs and other resources required in recycling which includes re-seconds initiatives. The circular economy approach to recycling of materials for similar or different products retains materials in the product cycle with incentives for the environment through reduction of the need for virgin materials and waste disposing at landfills. The field of recycling also includes re-processing where items are processed and used to produce new items of the same material and processes where new products are created from items. In cases were re-processing is not feasible the option chosen is sometimes to recover the energy from the material and utilize that energy for other needs. In worst case scenarios, materials which cannot be re-used, recycled, reprocessed or recovered for energy should instead be treated to minimize environmental and health and safety impacts. 

Waste management and recycling in Australia is dominated by private sector although it consists of other stakeholders such as government entities. Broadly speaking, research from the Waste Management Association of Australia estimate that the waste and resource recovery industry employs up to 50 000 people and contributes over $50 billion per annum with the more aggregated data varying from state to the other. The Australian Council of Recycling states that the recycling industry directly employs over 20 000 people and 35 000 people indirectly. Statistics from 13 years ago relative to 5 years show a marked increase of 7 million tonnes of waste that was generated in Australia which of course is linked to increase in population size, household income and economic activities amongst many other contributing factors. 4 years ago, in the National Waste Report 2016 which populated data from state and territory in Australia, the findings showed that the overall waste quantities correlate with population and gross state product with New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland generating the most waste. The fate of waste in Australia as stated in the same report showed that South Australia had the highest recovery rate, followed by the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and then New South Wales. 

Waste Legislation and Regulation

Regulation of waste and recycling in Australia has always happened at all levels of government and these include local, state and territory and the Australian government which oversees national leadership and coordination whilst ensuring that Australia’s international obligations regarding waste are met. Constitutional basis for legislations leading to the Recycling & Waste Reduction Bill 2020 included national coordination of waste issues provided for by the National Protection Council established under the National Protection Council Act 1994 which provided framework for the National Environmental Protection Measures. The passing of the bill in 2020 also came as part of the response to recommendations from the Environment and communications references committee to the Australian government in 2018. Suffice to say the major changes in Australia’s recycling priorities became more necessary than before given the shift in recyclable global markets which exposed the weak domestic market for recycled products. The Chinese government-imposed restrictions on 24 types of solid waste which also included tighter contamination standards that created serious challenges for Australia. The exporting of Australian recycled waste to China had always been a low cost option to manage recycling. The downside of the abrupt shift was the lack of alternative markets, increased cost to reduce contamination and the lack of domestic markets hence the Recycling & Waste Reduction Bill 2020 paves way for an effective transition over the next few years from an export driven recycling economy to a more Australian circular economy. 

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Parliament of Australia. 2018. Report on Waste and recycling industry in Australia. Commonwealth of Australia. 

Thornton, E. 2018. The future of the Australian waste and recycling industry. Wrc plc. Retrieved 14/12/2020.